Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Explaining theatre

What, after all, is there to say? We tell our friend that the theatre is a place where people come and go, obsessively it would seem, through the same exposed rooms and spaces (they have been coming and going across the same exposed space of the Royal Court in London for decades), and where they perform various harmless and inconsequential actions: a bit of wandering around, some waving of the arms, some standing up and sitting down, and playing it all up as they do so, often getting remarkably excited. It is a place too, we tell our friend, where every action that is performed appears planned out or scripted in advance, at least to an extent. This produces a strange effect, we say, in that the people who are coming and going across the space - let's call them the actors - seem to have all the freedom in the world to do whatever they like, even the freedom not to do anything at all. But at the same time they seem constrained, as if all their choices are somehow being made for them somewhere else, and as if every move they make is basically a renewed attempt to deal with this peculiar situation.

Joe Kelleher, Theatre & Politics, 61-2

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Three installations/exhibitions

Over the last weekend I managed - during the course of a visit to London with a hundred theatre and performance students - to get to three very different but equally affecting installations/exhibitions. These were Miroslaw Balka's How It Is in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, Simon Annand's photographic exhibition The Half in the V & A Museum and Celeste Boursier-Mougenot's installation at The Curve in the Barbican.

Miroslaw Balka

Balka's How It Is is a huge steel box, welded together and sitting on piles. In shape it reflects the architecture of the Turbine Hall itself, and in size it looms as a hulking presence; viewed from the walkway above the floor of the hall, it dwarfs the figures walking alongside it. Underneath there is just enough clearance for me to walk upright, and as I pass under it I can hear the footsteps of those inside. The entrance is from the far end of the hall, facing the end wall. Here the box presents itself as a large black cavity with a ramp leading up to the opening. Walking in I can make out figures ahead of me in the gloom by the light reflecting off their skin. The details of their faces are indistinguishable. The walls are covered in black felt, absorbing the light. To approach the walls is to experience a dizzying disorientation; just how far is the wall from my outstretched hand? The low level of light - I can feel my eyes working - and the muffled faces of those around me are akin to the experience of Societas Raffaello Sanzio's Purgatorio in the Silk Street Theatre this time last year. Then I faced a figure, half protruding from a wall, struggling to emerge. For one brief second the figure looked at me, making a kind of eye contact, even though his facial features remained veiled in the darkness. Turning around to look back towards the opening of the box, those coming into or leaving appear as silhouettes against the wall of the Turbine Hall beyond. And for all the emphasis on lack of light and the effect of this on sight I am aware of the echoed sounds of activities elsewhere in the hall, beyond what I can see. This reminds me of the Holocaust Tower in Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin, where light and the sounds of city traffic enter through the slightest of chinks in the bare angular walls of a concrete silo. For more on Balka's How It Is, see the video here.

Simon Annand

At the V & A Museum later that afternoon I finally got to see Simon Annand's photographic exhibition The Half. The exhibition is comprised of actors photographed during 'the half', the thirty minutes leading up to the call for 'beginners' (made five minutes before a performance is due to commence). I bought Annand's book The Half last year when I first heard about the exhibition, but this is the first time I've been able to see the exhibition and experience the cumulative effect of the photographs placed side by side around the walls of a room. The exhibition was made more interesting because of an introductory video and the presence of more recent colour photographs not included in the book (which is made up of purely black and white shots). In the video Annand is shown photographing actors, and his voice is heard discussing his interest in the process. He states that he isn't interested in the backstage environment itself, or in the ephemera of theatre, but in the relationship of actors "with themselves". And in the course of the video he is shown doing something that I suspected from my viewing of the photographs: he instructs one young actor how to look at his colleague as they sit side by side in the dressing room.

By all accounts the exhibition has been immensely popular, and the room at the V & A was certainly well patronized while I was there. Interestingly, there was a search for recognition amongst the images, and people would point out to their friends the actors they recognised, stating their names and listing the roles or occasions in which they'd seen them. So much of this exhibition is actually about faces and faciality; there are full length and three-quarter shots and some certainly focus on physique, but it is the close-ups of actors' faces that is the key to the images and to the affect nature of the exhibition. The faces display, on the whole, a melancholy, pensiveness and weakness as if the beings displayed here are themselves facing an overwhelming force. The actors here are vulnerable, except when shown enjoying the comforts of sociality. With others present in the image there is laughter and a spatial solidarity. Sometimes this is even enjoyed with the unseen photographer.

In this exhibition actors are made to appear as strangely fragile beings, subjected to the unavoidable necessity of time and action. If, as Alice Rayner has argued, a glimpse into the backstage offers "a sense of privileged access to the secrets of the real thing", then this exhibition, I'd argue, does little to demystify the backstage, but the very attraction of the exhibition relies on maintaining the "seeming difference" of that space from the space of the viewer. The actors depicted seem like creatures not unlike ourselves, but they are presented as somehow more aware, more knowing, of the passing of time and of their own mortality. See images from The Half here.

Celeste Boursier-Mougenot

Finally, Celeste Boursier-Mougenot's installation at the Curve gallery in the Barbican Centre brought me real joy. There was a lengthy queue for the gallery. "It's free," the man behind the information desk mentioned apologetically when I asked about the queue. Joining the line, and listening in on the conversation of the couple next to me, an American woman walked up. "Is this the line for the birdies?" she asked. I presumed that she, like I, couldn't recall the artist's name, but just that this was an artwork featuring small birds and electric guitars.

Twenty-five people are allowed in at a time. Stepping through a curtain of chain metal links, a strobe light flashes. Inside is dark with wooden steps leading down. "No food or drink, no flash photography and stay on the wooden floorboards", the attendant had instructed me before I entered. The floorboards are untreated pine, of the type one might find marking a path through a nature reserve. It's a boardwalk really, running through the curved space. On either side are patches of sand with clumps of spinifex grass, so it really does seem to be a boardwalk through a darkened landscape of sand, except that large across the dark walls are projections of rapid fingers working the fret boards of guitars. The projections are in white outline, the guitars are Gibson Les Pauls. Occasionally the body of a guitar is visible. Small speakers line the path, sparsely placed, with the sound emitted being unusually high pitched, insect-like.

As I walk along, the curved space lightens, until I see the fully lit space at the end. Here the gallery broadens out and its here that my fellow spectators are gathered. Four small, open nesting boxes are high up on the wall; one has pieces of dried spinifex grass emerging from it. The wooden boardwalk covers nearly the whole space, except for patches of sand and spinifex. Depending on the size each of these has either a cymbal on a stand, an upturned guitar or bass, or a microphone stand without a microphone. The cymbals are attached upside down, with the concave surface filled with bird seed or water.

In and amongst this are the finches, apparently an equal number of males and females. Some cluster on an amplifier, while other pairs perch on guitars, preening each other. One female chases a male off a guitar; he lands at the other end only to be chased off again, then again. In doing this the female bounces down the strings, with the attached amplifier emitting heavy plosive bursts of sound. One of the other preening couples picks at the strings creating a light rhythm. Two guitars have dried spinifex strands woven in amongst their strings while a nest of sorts is under construction behind a fire extinguisher. A bass growls while the birds themselves emit slight peeps and cheeps. They fly close past my legs, from one perch to another, a whirr of wings. I stand, observing, and the sudden bursts of sound or the quick flight of birds from one spot to the next attract my attention and that of my fellow spectators, turning us around and around in the space. The gallery is a walk in aviary, part nature park, but also part band room. The instruments make audible the birds' presence and movements. It feels like I'm intruding on the birds' space as they feed, preen and build nests. But their actions are also mediated by the guitars. Perhaps what I experience here is a strange ecology of action and harmonics where the very sensitivity of these birds to my presence and that of others is made more apparent by the sensitivity of the instruments.